Chicago muscles in4/5/2017
Two new eateries — Windy City Style
In Carl Sandburg’s America, Chicago was the “stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” Recently, its larger-than-life persona begat two local restaurants that cater to big appetites. Pete Faber is a Sandburg-sized native of Des Moines who returned in 2016 after a dozen years and a quartet of restaurants in Chicago. His Barn Town Brewing in West Des Moines is the antithesis of the suburban restaurant template (think Cheesecake Factory) where menus are so large they require binders. Barn Town’s menu fits on one side of a piece of paper. Appetizers, sandwiches, salads, wings, mac & cheese and burgers are the only choices. The shorter the menu, the more apt one is to not be served a mistake.
Barn Town prepares every dish from scratch and, in my experiences, consistently served things that should be hot when they were still hot and things that should be cold when they were still cold. Haystack onion rings and french fries were delightfully crisp and hot. Homemade potato chips were too inconsistent — mostly crisp, but some not at all — for that status. Roasted Brussels sprouts (with lardon, Parmesan and balsamic reduction) rivaled those at fine dining establishments. Much younger friends raved about the pretzels (with whiskey honey mustard) and the mac & cheese (with Boursin and white cheddar). Salad greens were upscale from usual sports bar fare, too. Pastrami sandwiches seemed un-Chicago like, being made with something other than brisket.
Barn Town’s burgers showed off the biggest shoulders on the menu. All were made with two large patties, perfectly hard-seared on my requests. The smallest burger was too big for my mouth, so deconstruction may be required for people with less than Chicago-sized appetites. Chef David Blackburn is confident enough to not offer “build-your own” options.
Beer is obviously a big draw here. Barn Town’s brews are most remarkable for their restraint. Alcohol contents were in the 4 to 5 percent range. The menu specifies types of hops used. The restaurant offered some other Midwestern beers on tap that can get one drunk in half the time per sip. Homemade root beer also served.
Pot Belly Sandwich Shop takes its name from the stove — not the abdominal body fat, nor the pig. It began in an antique store in 1977 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Some 413 stores later, it still attempts to keep its nostalgic appeal with a pot belly stove, mostly wooden furniture and a soft drink cooler that deals with several pre-1980s recipe drinks, made with cane sugar. Music playing on my visits also hung its ball cap in the distant past.
Is this sub shop any better, or worse, than Subway, Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, or Firehouse? The short answer is — no. Its niche is toasting every sandwich whether one wants it toasted or not. The breads, particularly the thin breads, were more interesting than other sub shops offer. I liked that roast beef included more fat than usually found, and that house vinaigrette had an interesting zing. There were also several low-calorie options on the menu.
Napkin dispensers were sensibly supplied on all tables. Pot Belly sandwiches can be as messy to eat as Chicago Italian beef, particularly when house vinaigrette is included (advised). Throw your necktie behind your shoulder, stand up and lean over a high top. Plan to use 10 napkins per sandwich.
Business has been solid on my visits, even at odd hours. This hopefully means customers are responding to the concept better than investors. Pot Belly has been through a disastrous five-year period on the NASDAQ without rebounding much at all during the Trump rally. ♦